JOHN DONVAN, host: The new CBS crime drama "Person of Interest" tells the story of two men who prevent crimes before they can be committed. Excuse me. They find out about the crimes by looking at data gathered by intelligence surveillance designed to catch terrorists. The series was picked up by CBS after the network says it tested better than any other series in recent memory.
The show's producer is J.J. Abrams, creator of the hit show "Lost," and Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote "The Dark Knight." He created that series and also produces it. Both men have brought their knowledge of suspense and crime to the meaty subject of privacy and surveillance. But in a time of rapid advancement of technology and heightened terrorist suspicion, it's unclear to some where the line of fiction ends and where reality begins.
So if you have seen the show, we want to know: Is it about you? Do you feel like you're being watched, and do you care? Or is this clearly fiction? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining me now to talk about the series are the executive producers Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams. Welcome to both of you.
J.J. ABRAMS: Hi.
JONATHAN NOLAN: Thank you so much.
DONVAN: So CBS is saying that this show has tested better than any other show in recent memory. What do you think happened here? Why does this resonate with viewers?
NOLAN: I think it feels like there's sort of an undercurrent here that we've tapped into. We like to say - I mean, there's a heightened aspect to this show. We like to say that reality is one firmware upgrade away from the show. That's the difference.
DONVAN: And am I speaking with Jonathan or J.J.?
NOLAN: This is Jonathan.
DONVAN: OK, Jonathan. Thank you. I needed to clarify that. J.J., hello to you, as well.
DONVAN: All right. I just wanted to establish the different tones in your voices. So the two main characters use this database that - they call it the machine, and it collects information from everywhere - phone calls, credit card records, Internet searches - and works on the notion that you can find patterns in these things using algorithms, and, in theory, find out what people are doing.
So Michael Emerson, who played the fantastic character of Benjamin Linus in "Lost," is now Finch in this program. He plays the billionaire who invented this system and is now putting it to something of a private use. Let's listen to him as he describes it to somebody in the program.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PERSON OF INTEREST")
MICHAEL EMERSON: (as Finch) This thing looks for plotters, for schemers. It looks for malicious intent. We built it to stop terrorists before they could act. But a machine doesn't understand the difference between those crimes that are relevant to national security and the ones that are irrelevant.
DONVAN: So what happens in the program is he and a colleague, whom he hires, go out to solve the crimes that are considered irrelevant, or to at least to approach, look up - look at and investigate the acts of violence that are irrelevant. And those can be mafia hits and lovers' quarrels, all sorts of things like that. And what's really interesting - and you alluded to this a little bit, Jonathan - is the plausibility of this. Is this something that could be for real soon, now?
NOLAN: Well, the government's been actively trying to build something exactly like this for at least 15 years. So the science fiction sort of question of the show is simply whether or not, you know, the government's competent enough to have achieved it. That's really the only question you have to ask yourself.
John Poindexter - famously of the Iran-Contra affair back in the day - was heading DARPA in 2003 and 2004 and tried to build something called the Total Information Awareness program, which was basically exactly what we sort of postulate in the show...
DONVAN: But Congress did - Congress found out and shut them down, we think.
NOLAN: What happened kind of hilariously is that Congress found out and shut down the program in DARPA, and what happened was Poindexter moved it into the NSA. So it went from being in the public eye to being top secret. So we really have no idea what happened to that program.
DONVAN: J.J., the part of this that I think also connects with every viewer who's a citizen of this country and a member of the culture, we all leave bread crumbs behind us every day. We leave markers to where we've been and maybe somebody could figure out where we're going, but we go through toll booths and past cameras and we swipe credit cards and we go online and do searches. And I kind of want to get a sense of whether that's what you're tapping into, is the notion that it's not just some bad guy who's being watched and is out there, but it's kind of all of us.
ABRAMS: I think that when you look around, when you become aware - or in Jonathan's case - hyperaware of the cameras that are watching all of us, you realize that over the course of any hour and any day, you're being observed almost constantly. And when you watch any documentary or reality show, you see how people become so accustomed to cameras on them, that the cameras go away. They become invisible, and the people just behave. And that's kind of what we've all been conditioned to do. We're all in a reality program.
And if you just realize how many cameras are actually on you, and you think for a second, oh, there's someone behind those cameras, they're just not, you know, cameras. They're cameras that are wired and tapped into networks that are observed. I mean, people are observing these things. And that was really, for me, the most provocative aspect of this pitch that Jonah had, which was: Who's watching? And what would happen if someone was watching and was able to predict crime?
And we've all seen crime shows. But crime shows are usually a reaction to a crime that's preexisted, that happens, you know, just when the show begins. And this show posits: What would happen if we could prevent a crime? And you don't know if the person of interest every week is going to be a victim or a perpetrator.
DONVAN: Right. You don't know who your bad guy is. We're asking our listeners who are your viewers, fans of the show, to tell us whether they connect with it on that basis. And so we want to go now to Justin in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Justin, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.
JUSTIN: Hello. Thank you for taking my call.
DONVAN: So, you're...
JUSTIN: I think the show is great. I really enjoy it. I find that it's very realistic. It's like we are being watched all the time. Like I said, I'm 21. I'm a student at Western. And it's like any time you go into the store or go into the university, you're being watched. I don't - I couldn't say I really care much, because I feel like it's going to happen, anyway, yet it does make you think, like, who's actually watching the cameras.
ABRAMS: It's funny, the day that we went to CBS to talk about how they were going to present the show and how it was going to be, you know, premiered and everything, as a joke, they showed a little video at the beginning of the meeting that was of Jonathan pulling into the lot, going to his parking space, parking, getting out, walking, getting into the building, into the elevator, going the stair - and it was - I think there were, like, a dozen cameras, and none of them are placed there. They were all just the actual cameras they have.
But the fact that they were able to cut that together in, you know, the 20 minutes before the meeting began was crazy. And it was a joke, but it wasn't. It was a real reminder that this was all real. This is all out there. So I think that that sense of being watched is not an illusion.
DONVAN: And it's not just watching. Finch makes the point that it's all kinds of data, and this - it reminds me of, you know, when you get the phone call from your credit card company that says we want to make sure that you've made these last three charges because they look suspicious to us, tells you, number one, they're watching and, number two, that they have ways of translating the data, figuring out a pattern or profile that either is you or isn't you. And you addressed that, as well, that it's not just about cameras. Although visually it works terrifically, it's more than just cameras, isn't it?
NOLAN: Cameras, in many ways, are the least sophisticated part of what we're doing, but certainly the most visually exciting. So we use a lot of them in the show. But I think the credit card example is a fantastic example. I mean, the credit card companies, for years, have been working on algorithms that essentially predict what you would do. And then when something falls outside of your - what they consider your normal behavior - an impulse purchase, a splurge, something like that - you get a phone call. It's sort of exactly the same technology.
DONVAN: But we think we want that one. I think we think we want that one. I think...
NOLAN: Well, that's the thing. It's, like, where do you draw that line?
ABRAMS: And it's not just what you do but where you are. I mean, it's - it really is incredible how this is about tracking you. But the show "Person of Interest" is really much more about these two heroes. I mean, they're unlikely in the techniques they're using are technologically, you know, titillating and interesting. But the action of the show is essentially - and I love this when Jonathan pitched the idea. It felt like a superhero show without capes, without costumes.
DONVAN: Finally got rid of the cape.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: Paul is in Orange Park, Florida. Paul, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
PAUL: Yes. Sixty-one years old and would not want to go to the extreme of saying I'm paranoid, but I feel as though the government, at all levels, is aware of what I do and where I go and how I manage my money.
NOLAN: Yeah, you're paranoid. Just kidding. Just joking.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: He is just joking. But Jonathan, I want to take - I mean, you've obviously given a great deal of thought to this and wanted plausibility. In your heart of hearts, to what degree do you think the government actually is collecting all of this stuff on us?
NOLAN: In my heart of hearts, I think, having lived in D.C. for five years, sadly, I think the answer is probably that the thing protecting us most is a level of technical sophistication, that it's difficult to build this sort of thing that we present in the show. And so if you consider how buggy half the software you use in your life is, then hopefully that's protecting us.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: Paul, do you change the way you live your life because of this sense that they're out there watching you, that you could be seen?
PAUL: I'm disconnecting, you know, taking more of my financial transactions offline as, you know, you might say. I avoid public places and - not that I'm doing anything wrong. I'm not. I'm a law-abiding citizen, but you saw the latest news about the GPS trackers that law enforcement felt no compulsion to have a court order to put on people.
DONVAN: All right, Paul. Thanks very much for your call. Thanks for joining us. I'd like to go to Amy in San Francisco.
AMY: Hi. I actually have a complete opposite view. I feel like we're in a limbo land, maybe, where a while ago, when there was just a few cameras, it felt like there was a lot of focus going on. But now, as we have more cameras, there are so many people and so much information out there, that we feel a certain anonymity. And it might be that, eventually, we got more technology to be able to track everybody.
But there's no way that the government knows what I have bought, et cetera, or at least enough to keep track of. Sure, if I become a person of interest in a real sense, from, I mean, in an investigation, maybe that would happen. But I know from my investigations of things that I do for work, there's no way I could keep track of that many things at that many times.
DONVAN: All right. Thanks, Amy, for your comment. And we've heard from Rita by email, who says, for me, it is all about the two stars of the show: one a nerdy, physically compromised brainiac - that would be Finch, played by Michael Emerson - and one drop-dead gorgeous, highly confident partner who work together for the good of all - that would be Reese, played by Jim Caviezel. In the back of my mind, she says, it's the unlikelihood that our government could do anything that well - which is your point, Jonathan. Your hope - you're betting on incompetence. I love the show. I live in the boondocks to know why I live there. Thanks for the program.
But speaking of what can be done and some of the gee-whiz, there's a scene in which Reese early on - actually, in the first episode - and he said - that happens a few times. He kind of hijacks another person's cell phone. He can hear everything that's on the phone, and he can hear everything that happens in the room where the phone might be resting at any particular moment. And he basically has control over it. So is that make believe, or is that doable now?
NOLAN: Well, that's - if your phone - if you look at your phone and it's newer than six or seven years old, if it was made since 2005, the government compelled the manufacturers and the carriers to set aside enough bandwidth and the capability to turn on that microphone. So if your phone is new and - you know, it was built in the last couple of years, and it's got power and it's within range of a cell tower, the government could be listening to you.
In terms of what they do with - in the show, it's called bluejacking. And if you've kept your phone up to date, it's harder to do it these days. But it's certainly not impossible. And if you look at a couple of cases over the last couple of years with laptops and with cell phones, one with laptops where there was a school - I believe in Midwest, I think in Ohio - where they'd given the kids laptops, and surreptitiously started turning on the cameras in the laptops and watching people, watching students at home. It's a massive class action lawsuit now.
I think the idea that we're really drawn to here is that a lot of these devices that we take with us, whether it's a laptop or a cell phone, are sort of functioning as - sort of a like a Trojan horse, you know. And this is why we're sort of seeing a firmware upgrade aspect of it, because we've all got the hardware. We carry it with us everywhere.
ABRAMS: For the true conspiracy theorists, I think the irony is that we're actually all paying to be monitored, you know, or to have the ability to be monitored. It's really kind of amazing.
DONVAN: Julie in St. Louis, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
JULIE: Hi. This is Julie. I wanted to comment on the use of the technology as a deterrent in crime in the show, and if it exists currently. These surveillances are secretive, and people don't know about them. But if they were more public, do you think that would defer people from committing crimes in the first place by raising the cost of the crime?
DONVAN: J.J., you want to take that?
ABRAMS: Well, it's an interesting question. I mean, I don't know, you know, how much you want to make people aware of, you know, how much the government will want to make people aware of what they're actually doing. And my guess is that - and funding is certainly a part of it. But I think one of the reasons that DARPA went NSA is that it was, you know, it became sort of, essentially, a black ops. And I think there's a kind of - I'm sure there's a strategy involved in that regard.
And as someone who, like, I'm sure most every listener feels like they have nothing to hide, and therefore they go about their business. There is something sort of fundamentally unnerving about the notion, as public as they may make it, that we are being watched. But, of course, anything that would help prevent any kind of a serious crime is only a good thing.
DONVAN: Are your two heroes also violating everybody else's privacy by reading this material off of the machine?
NOLAN: Yup. Yup.
DONVAN: Is that a problem?
NOLAN: I think it's one of the paradoxes we sort of play with in the show and one of the questions that Finch asks himself. I think it's really important - you know, I mean, I don't - I think, although it's apparent, I don't have - I'm pretty torn myself about the idea of surveillance in this way. You know, I grew up in England, where the Panopticon and the idea of a total surveillance state was a given. And they actually put the cameras up in a very - very prominent locations. So it was a deterrent, as the last caller was sort of asking about.
I think, you know, for our characters, the idea is they're sort of taking the surveillance state - and much as the show is about the idea of the surveillance state and asking that question, it's also assuming the surveillance state. It's here. We're sort of stuck with it.
DONVAN: I took note of Finch saying at one point the best place to hide is in plain sight. But I think the message that your show also tells us that now everywhere is in plain sight, and that maybe there's nowhere left to hide. All right, guys, I want to thank you. Jonathan Nolan is creator and executive producer of the new CBS drama "Person of Interest," which airs on Thursdays. He joined us from our New York bureau. J.J. Abrams is the executive producer, and he joined us from NPR West. Thanks, both, for joining us.
NOLAN: Thank you.
ABRAMS: Thank you.
DONVAN: And tomorrow, a new book focuses attention on the Trail of Tears. This is the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm John Donvan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.